New labour boss makes history

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The election of Gerd Kristiansen as the new boss of Norway’s largest trade union federation LO means that the country’s two most powerful positions in the business and labour sectors are now held by women. Given poll results leading into the next national elections, Norway’s next prime minister, finance minister and foreign minister may be women as well.

Gerd Kristiansen acknowledged her supporters after winning the election to become LO's next leader after Roar Flåthen (left). PHOTO: LO/Andrea Strømmen

Gerd Kristiansen acknowledged her supporters after winning the election to become LO’s next leader after Roar Flåthen (left). PHOTO: LO/Andrea Strømmen

If Norway’s Conservative Party (Høyre) does as well on Election Day as polls suggest, the new prime minister will be Høyre’s leader Erna Solberg. LO’s own election on Monday resulted in Kristiansen, age 57, becoming the new counterpart to Kristin Skogen Lund, the 46-year-old head of Norway’s national employers’ association NHO. For the first time in Norwegian history, the country’s three most powerful positions (prime minister, LO leader and NHO leader) may all be held by women, with political scientists predicting to newspaper Dagsavisen on Tuesday that the situation would yield another boost for women’s rights.

Kristiansen, though, made it clear she will campaign hard to retain Labour Party leader Jens Stoltenberg as Norwegian prime minister. “I will do what I can that she (Solberg) doesn’t take over that position,” Kristiansen told Dagsavisen. She called Solberg “a nice woman” but their politics set them apart.

Kristiansen claimed she was looking forward, on the other hand, to “cooperating” with Lund, who represents the business interests with which LO often comes into conflict. Kristiansen thinks, though, that she and Lund can work together to keep equality high on the agenda and improve both pay and working conditions for women who still often find themselves in the lowest positions in terms of status and wages.

‘Equality important’
“Equality policies are important for LO and important to me,” said the former nursing assistant from Northern Norway who also has worked on fishing boats and survived a dramatic capsizing at sea many years ago. “The most important thing we need is the right to full-time positions,” Kristiansen said. All too often, she feels, women working within health care and service businesses are relegated to part-time jobs.

Lund of NHO has earlier placed more importance on what people stand for than their gender. She’s nonetheless curious about what it will be like to have Kristiansen as her counterpart instead of her predecessor, Roar Flåthen. “I’m absolutely certain we can cooperate well with her,” Lund told Dagsavisen. “I knew Roar Flåthen well and have had a good relation with him. I must build one up with Kristiansen.”

Downplayed power struggle
Kristiansen triumphed over LO’s deputy leader Tor-Arne Solbakken after what Norwegian media described as a major power struggle at the top of the trade union federation that represents nearly 900,000 union members in Norway. Kristiansen herself described LO’s election process as no different from other organizations’, with various factions simply keen to gain the best possible representation.

Newspaper Aftenposten noted that with Gerd Kristiansen as new leader of LO, fully six of Norway’s eight major organizations involved in worklife in Norway are now headed by women. In addition to Lund at NHO, the other three employer organizations KS, Spekter and Virke are also led by women. Only the two other trade union federations, Akademikerne and Unio, are headed by men.

Rocky road to power
Kristiansen’s road to the top has been unusual, and dramatic, reported Dagsavisen. She’s originally from Hinnøya in Troms County and grew up on a farm. She became a single mother at the age of 17, and after some schooling in home economics, she worked on board a fishing trawler along with four men in remote areas of the Barents Sea. She once told labour journal Fagbladet that fishing in the Barents was round-the-clock work, more “intense,” she felt, than cod fishing in the Norwegian Sea.

After surviving an accident in extremely high seas with a full load of fish on board, Kristiansen returned to land and became a nursing assistant, working in a psychiatric hospital in Tromsø until her representation of colleagues got her more and more involved in their trade union (called a fagforening, literally a “professional organization,” in Norway). That eventually led to her work at LO, and the applause she received on Monday.

Labour Party leaders and several researchers were delighted with Kristiansen’s election. “This gives me new hope for the position of women in Norway,” researcher and Labour politician Helga Maria Hernes told Dagsavisen. “I’ll send her some flowers.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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